Our purposes for this study were to examine a group of preservice
science teachers' response to inquiry activities that use
a suite of web-based bioinformatics tools, the Biology WorkBench.
We were most interested in exploring their views of students'
ability to engage in these inquiry activities, as well as
in locating their attitudes toward teaching using this type
of inquiry activity. We were interested, as well, in the
teachers' visions of technology use in their classrooms.
We locate and organize their comments about the activities
we designed and they executed, with respect to inquiry,
to teaching inquiry, and to teaching teachers to teach inquiry.
We embed in our discussion an exploration of the purposes
of teaching inquiry and of teaching science, and, necessarily,
to what is legitimate science teaching, learning, and knowledge.
There is a resurgence of interest in inquiry teaching and
learning (Bruce, 1997, and Crawford, Hurd, Lappan and Schwab,
all 2000). We, the authors, believe there is educational
value, validity and power in students engaging in authentic
inquiry in the science classroom and elsewhere. We have
been involved in a project to develop curricular materials
for preservice science teachers that utilize a particular
suite of tools used by research scientists in the area of
bioinformatics. We saw in this project the opportunity to
build in and maintain both the spirit and the practice of
inquiry. Indeed, central to all of the materials we have
developed is the deliberate architecture of inquiry space;
that is, a space for students to ask questions, search for
answers, and communicate the results of their searches.
As we have shared the materials with teachers and students
at various educational levels and disciplinary specialties,
we have noted several trends. Biology teachers, compared
with teachers of other science subjects, have been less
likely to think their students can engage successfully with
the materials, and they point to the students' relative
lack of necessary and appropriate background as the major
obstacle. They also tend to think that only the most advanced
of their student population can perform the activities,
and then only in special situations, even though we have
successfully used these same materials with middle-school
students, non-A.P. high schoolers, and non-science major
undergraduates. We designed the study described here to
investigate these trends.
We bring to our work in science teacher education several
overlapping perspectives. The central perspective is that
of constructivism--the belief that students construct knowledge
rather than receive it, and that rather than dispense knowledge,
teachers facilitate their students' unique and personal
construction of it (von Glasersfeld, 1987 and 1995). Implicit
in this is a decentralization of the role of facts and established
truths. While this perspective is anything but revolutionary
in the rhetoric of (most areas in) the education community,
in practice, positivism continues to reign.
We also bring to our work a framework that considers science
education to include multiple domains, including but not
limited to what is usually considered science knowledge,
per se. Our conception of science education includes domains
of process, creativity, affect, application, and global
connection (Yager, 1980 and 1996).
Students learn through activity (Dewey, 1966), activity
which is purposeful, teacher-facilitated, and student-mediated
if not student-directed. The experience of education is
what educates. Like Dewey, Greene (1988) places freedom
as a central perspective, and endorses education that builds
in (to itself and its participants) freedom, an ability
to live freely, and a capacity to enhance freedom.
We apply to our analysis the notion of a paradigm (Kuhn,
1963), and how inculcation into a paradigm limits one's
ability to work or even to see outside of it. The
paradigms we consider in this study are about teaching in
general and science teaching in particular, especially as
they relate to teachers' attitudes toward student inquiry
within the curriculum.
Finally, we turn to Bourdieu (1977), to consider the obstacles
to successfully introducing authentic inquiry into the science
curriculum. According to Bourdieu, the status quo is likely
to maintained at least in part through a persistent belief
that the existing situation is the natural, and therefore,
This is a small-scale, qualitative, close-focus study of
a workshop the authors conducted with one secondary science
methods class for student teachers. The workshop was on
inquiry-based activities in bioinformatics, which the authors
designed and which the preservice teachers completed, discussed
during the workshop and commented on in writing during and
after the workshop.
The study combines several aspects of action research, as
we examine our own practice, as the subject of the study,
and in terms of implications for our future practice as
science educators. We have applied an iterative thematic
analysis to the written comments.
Primary data come from a workshop with preservice teachers
and the week following the workshop. During the workshop,
we presented three deliberately sequenced activities. The
first was a context-setting discussion-based activity in
which students considered seven separate scenarios, each
of which was outlined on cards and read by individual students
within a scenario group. The scenarios touched on issues
related to bioinformatics, including for-profit and not-for-profit
genome projects, gene patenting, and forensic application
of DNA testing.
The second activity involved a specific scenario involving
the DNA of an individual animal, and trying to learn something
about it by comparing it to DNA of other animalsóthrough
examining raw amino acid sequence data, a multiple amino
acid sequence alignment, and a phylogenetic "tree," all
generated by the Biology WorkBench, the tool suite with
which we have been working. In this second activity, the
participants were shown how to interpret these data sources
and then guided through a consideration of what could be
learned from them. It did not involve the participants using
the technology to generate their own data.
The third activity was also initiated by a specific scenario,
examining the similarities and differences of chimpanzee
populations based on their geographic location and sub-species
designation. In this third activity participants were responsible
for both defining a specific research question and using
the bioinformatics analysis tools to carry out their own
analysis. Over the course of the activity series, the students
were oriented to the components of the tool suite, introduced
to the data set, and were asked to identify possible investigations.
The data for our study are of three types.
First are the student teachers' written comments after
each of three activities. Each time we asked the student
teachers the following two questions:
A1. What learning, if any, took
A2. Would you use an activity such as this in your class?
Second are their written responses
the week after the workshop to three questions:
B1. What teaching and learning goals would drive/guide
your use of these activities (or activities like these)
in the classroom?
B2. What teaching and learning goals would drive/guide
your use of this technology in the classroom?
Third are written notes we, the authors/workshop presenters,
took during and immediately following the workshop.
B3. What teaching and learning goals would drive/guide your
use of any technology in the classroom?
Secondary data are from workshops we have held with other
populations, including all high school biology teachers, all
undergraduate biology instructors, or mixed groups of high
school and undergraduate teachers and students, preservice
teachers and teacher educators.
The student teachers who participated in the workshop engaged
enthusiastically and, from our perspectives, productively
in the three activities we designed and presented to them.
However, they were not quick to embrace as teachers
the inquiry space that they embraced as students.
The results of our study reinforce the idea that before
teachers can embrace an inquiry space (especially a novel
one), several issues need to be addressed and accounted
for. According to these students teachers, the space must
not seem too large or too undefined. Students must be sufficiently
directed. The teacher must feel adequately prepared. These
issues are related to fear of a real or perceived lack or
loss of controlóover the goals and means of the classroom,
over the curriculum, over time, and over the learning that
Students' construction of their own knowledge is believed
in, or at least attested to, but only when that construction
is carefully controlled by the teacher, out of materials
furnished by (or routed through) and completely understood
by the teacher, into structures pre-determined by the teacher,
and within the teacher's experience (therefore, recognizable
and certifiable as knowledge), and that will fit with or
match the knowledge that is supposed to follow.
Possible exceptions are:
- activities considered either exploratory of future knowledge
or confirmatory of existing knowledge,
- activities that, perhaps oddly, are not recognizable
as science, such as discussion, brainstorming and role-playing),
although these tend to be allotted minimal curricular
and temporal space in a classroom,
- activities or inquiries for which the possible outcomes
are entirely predictable
- activity that can be seen as accomplishing subsidiary
goals, such as technological competence, problem solving
skill, nature of science understanding, and awareness
of social and ethical issues.
Our goals in our curriculum design project have been to
architect space for inquiry, learning and teaching. confident
that the suite of tools we have been using (the Biology
WorkBench in this project) is robust enough to accommodate
authentic inquiry. We have worked within that suite as if
under a giant umbrella. We have tried to orient teachers
and students to the umbrella, so that they can get a sense
of what ground it covers, and what kind of shade it provides,
so that they may direct it to "shed some shade" on something
the students (and their teachers) will find interesting,
useful, and educational to do. In other words, we have been
trying to build inquiry spaces in which to pursue and construct
However, as long as teachers view the "other" goals and
domains of science education (e.g., technology and social
issues) to be subsidiary to "real" science knowledge, rather
than embedded within and part of science, and to be threatening
to teachers' control (in all its senses), we see ongoing
and substantial challenges to locating authentic inquiry
"safely" within teachers' repertoire, and, therefore, within
the science curriculum.
As believers that students should have the experience of
pursuing answers to questions that they themselves have
asked, we want to work with teachers to increase their confidence
in their students' abilities to do inquiry. Yet, according
to our data, the more the teacher knows, the more the teacher
thinks the student needs to know BEFORE they can DO, which
presents some real obstacles to students pursuing inquiry.
The deferment, perhaps forever, of allowing (much less sanctioning)
students to ask and pursue their own questions, is one way
that we as teachers uphold the scientific paradigms in which
we have been inculcated. It is also a way that we fail to
gird students to engage in revolutionary science, to conceive
of questions outside of the paradigm. Maxine Greene (1988)
argues that one of our responsibilities as teachers is to
build in the capacity for freedom; insisting that our students
have "comprehensive" background enforces a tool-bound conception
of science and enhances the likelihood that freedom will
Our data show that these teachers believe extremely undesirable
for a student to make a misstep or to arrive at an undesignated
or unanticipated destination. For many teachers, this represents
a threat to the order and control that are considered so
essential to the classroom. It is an invitation to chaos,
and certainly a complication of teachers' and curriculum
This significance of this study lies in the sobering message
it communicates to teacher educators and curriculum designers
about the obstacles to instituting inquiry education, and
perhaps, we would hope, to the perceptive reader, in hints
about ways to overcome those obstacles.
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